When you say something dumb, you have a couple options. You can double down and defend whatever dumb thing you said. This is usually the Republican’s strategy. Like when Congresswoman Michelle Bachman suggested that vaccinations cause “mental retardation.” Or, more recently, when Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said that President Kennedy’s 1960 speech about religion and the separation of church and state made him “want to throw up.” (Santorum evoking the image of throw-up? That’s just gross.)
Or you can admit that you were wrong and apologize, like Rush Limbaugh did early last week.
But when it comes to apologies, there are two types: there are real apologies, and then there are fauxpologies. A fauxpology is that which is issued when someone is not genuinely sorry. The wording of a fauxpology subtly or not-so-subtly calls attention to this fact.
When you fauxpologize you are consciously or unconsciously defending whatever dumb thing you said to begin with.
Rush Limbaugh’s apology for calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," then demanding she post online videos of her having sex was a fauxpology, reason why woman everywhere are more pissed off than ever. It was to the effect of: “I meant everything that I said, I only wish I hadn’t used those two words [slut and prostitute] to deliver my point because now my advertisers are pulling out. I am sorry to have offended my advertisers because I need their money. Please don’t pull your ads from my show.”
I infamously considered the fauxpology route when I was removed from the classroom and put on administrative leave for writing and publishing stories of my sex work past while currently employed as an elementary school teacher.
"Maybe all I need to do is offer a sincere but carefully worded apology,” I quipped on Facebook shortly after shit hit fan. “A fauxpology, if you will. Something to the effect of, 'I am sincerely sorry that what I said offended you . . . Then I'd make a face like this :s"
Just underneath a fauxapology, the fauxpologist is quietly (or, as in my case, not-so-quietly) suggesting they believe it is absurd that people are upset in the first place. In my case, I was making light of people’s very real (albeit irrational) fear that a former hooker had been in contact with kids. Even though I was doing so privately on my own Facebook page, it is not a particularly useful way to express oneself -- something I realized just as soon as one of my “friends” sold my status as a quote to the NY Post.
Fun fact: I just noticed a comment in the comments section of that Gotham article insinuating that I was destined for whoredom in the eighth grade. Not so unusual a remark except that the commentator obviously knew me then given that she calls me Missi, the name I went by as an adolescent!! (Yes, that’s how I spelled it. Give me a break- it was the 90s and I was in the eighth grade.)
Speaking from experience, it’s hard to issue a sincere apology if you’re not willing or able to understand why people are upset. Best bet is to say nothing until you can make your points directly -- articulately and respectfully, especially if your ultimate point is to make people not-mad.
According to Sue Johnson, Author of "Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love," there are five components to any effective apology:
1. I care that you’re upset.
2. What you feel is valid and legitimate.
3. This is what I did that hurt/angered/upset you.
4. I was wrong, and I'm dismayed and disappointed by my behavior.
5. What can I do to make amends? I will do all I can to help you heal...
Some apologies are really hard to make. Sometimes, you really are sorry. In these cases, especially, stick to Sue’s script. You don’t have to grovel at someone’s feet, you just have to mean what you say. This is why a fauxpology will never do.
A fauxpology is the opposite of a sincere, thoughtful apology. By definition, it is not meaning what you say, and not saying what you mean. It is not caring that you’ve upset someone, not acknowledging their feelings as valid and legitimate. It is caring more about yourself and how you feel. It’s saving one’s own ass.
When I was a teacher, I was frequently having to encourage my students to apologize to one another. When a kid stood on the verge of getting in trouble for having hurt another’s feelings he or she would typically mumble an “I’m sorry” and think that was it.
An apology, I’d then have to explain, is a promise you won’t do it again. To make this sort of promise, you have to truly realize what you’ve done wrong.
It took some time but, ultimately, the “hooker teacher” did admit she was wrong. Though it had never been my intention to upset people the way that I did, people had been upset, a distraction had been created -- and would continue until I stepped down, and so, in the end, I did.
Being an elementary school teacher, I realized, was not the right job for me -- just as political punditry is no job for Rush Limbaugh or anyone else not capable of political speech above the fauxpology.
I’ve apologized publicly for certain mistakes I’ve made in my lifetime. There are some things, also, for which I make no apology. Like Rush, I have political opinions with which not all will agree. Unlike Rush Limbaugh, I don’t purposely infuriate the people I disagree with -- and I don’t fauxpologize.
These days, when people react negatively to my work, I pause and realign myself with what motivates my writing in the first place -- that is, my desire to connect. Sometimes, an apology is in order. Some times not. In those cases, I say nothing.
What is never called for is the mumbling of an “I’m sorry” to simply to worm oneself way off the hook. This is a fauxpology, so low on Kohlberg's stages of moral development that even an elementary school student can be taught to know better. Until Rush figures it out, fauxpology not accepted.